US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarks on her first trip to Asia today, with security issues high on the agenda. The public will be treated to lots of pretty diplomatic words as she confers with Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian and South Korean leaders. Those suave utterances, however, will mask stark underlying realities that affect the security posture of the US in Asia.
In Beijing, senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials have been testing US resolve for at least a dozen years, with successive commanders of US forces in this region cautioning the Chinese time and again not to miscalculate nor underestimate the US’ determination to remain a power in the Pacific. The government of Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and the Communist Party are beholden to the PLA to stay in power. They have become uneasy because the international economic crisis, China’s own faltering economy and repeated outbreaks of civil unrest have brought into question their mandate to hold office.
Clinton has indicated she plans to take a firm line with the Chinese. In written answers during her confirmation hearings, she said: “This is not a one-way effort. Much of what we will do depends on the choices China makes about its future at home and abroad.”
The Japanese government is even weaker, having had three prime ministers since Junichiro Koizumi stepped down in 2006. The approval rating of the incumbent, Taro Aso, hovers around 20 percent and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party may be voted out this year. That has almost paralyzed Japan’s ability to respond to US appeals for Tokyo to play a greater role in regional security. For their part, Japanese officials say they are worried about US President Barack Obama’s commitment to Japan and are concerned that the new president will bypass Japan in favor of improved ties with China.
In South Korea, recent governments, including that of President Lee Myung-bak, have not decided whether to continue the nation’s alliance with the US or to complete a free trade agreement with the US. Nor have they determined what sort of relations they want with China. In addition, South Koreans no longer seem intent on reunifying the peninsula because absorbing North Korea would be enormously expensive.
Only on hatred and distrust of Japan do a majority of South Koreans seem to agree. Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone met his South Korean counterpart, Yu Myung-whan, in Seoul on Wednesday, but they did little except to issue platitudes on economic cooperation, with a vague reference to a South Korea-Japan research program “to deal with Korean-Japanese history.” This animosity constitutes the weakest link in the US security posture in Asia as the US has defense treaties with both nations — whose military forces barely talk to each other.
Not on Clinton’s itinerary is North Korea, but it will be lurking in the background. It has become clear that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons. Moreover, he may order the test of another ballistic missile soon. And he has renewed his belligerence toward South Korea.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, may turn out to be the brightest stop on Clinton’s journey. Jakarta’s politics seems to be settling down after much turbulence, economic damage is no worse than elsewhere and Obama lived there as a child.